What Should A High School Diploma Mean?

What Should A High School Diploma Mean?
Washington lawmakers are mulling how to adjust high school graduation requirements. Performance data show the system is falling short. Photo: graduatetacoma.org.

As state lawmakers begin to align around two competing visions for funding K-12 basic education, they’re also considering changes to requirements for a Washington high school diploma. There’s a strong case to be made for raising the bar. The state lags the national average on graduation rates. More than half of graduates who land in community colleges in the state must take remedial courses. Less than a third of high school entrants have any type of postsecondary degree by age 26.

Don’t Undercut Subject Mastery Expectations

Yet the options now on the table appear to offer either slight improvements, or murky revisions that could play out poorly. At least two lawmakers are raising red flags about undercutting core subject standards that gird training and proficiency critical to workforce development.

HB 1012 and HB 1046 would de-link one or more standardized assessments from the list of requirements for a Certificate of Academic Achievement (CAA), or a Certificate of Individual Achievement (CIA). Either one is required to graduate.

Sponsored by 19 Republicans and Deputy Majority Floor Leader State Rep. Steve Bergquist (D-11), HB 1012 would delink the state science assessment from the CAA, beginning with the class of 2018. Yet almost 60 percent of Washington 4th graders and just more than that percent of 8th graders don’t reach the level of “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science exam. NAEP is known as “the nation’s report card.”

HB 1046 would abolish the CAA, as well as the CIA. However, according to a staff analysis of the bill, the state’s superintendent of public instruction and State Board of Education (SBE) would “maintain and continue to develop and revise a statewide assessment system for students in the content areas of reading, writing, mathematics, and science.” That bill passed out of the House Education Committee and is now in Appropriations. Its lone sponsor is State Rep. Drew MacEwen (R-35).

SB 5202 would give school districts a choice between national and state standardized tests, as one key graduation requirement. The SAT or ACT could be used instead of state standardized assessments, starting in 2018. The bill directs SBE to set the passing scores on the SAT and ACT tests for districts which chose this option.

The bill’s primary sponsor is State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6). Co-sponsors include State Sens. Andy Billig (D-3), Marko Liias (D-21), Tim Sheldon (D-35), Dino Rossi (R-45), and Jim Honeyford (R-15).

Making Diplomas More Relevant

Proponents say the shift away from state assessments is one step toward the broader goal of making diplomas more relevant to post-graduation pathways. To graduate, all Washington high school students currently must earn 24 credits and obtain the CAA, CIA, or provide “collection of evidence.” That generally refers to an alternative portfolio of work, meant to substitute for meeting other requirements. They must also create a “High School and Beyond Plan,” which they start in middle school.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal during a January 17 meeting of Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee voiced support for de-linking standardized tests from graduation requirements, but said they should still be seen as an important tool, to show where students need more focused coursework.

Reykdal also laid down a marker on improving actual academic outcomes, and criticized the “collection of evidence” alternative as similar to an “autopsy.” HB 1046 would do away with it.

HB 1012, focused on the science requirement, has drawn support from the Washington State School Directors’ Association. Director of Government Relations Jessica Vavrus told legislators at a January 19 public hearing their goal is to delink all state assessments as graduation prerequisites.

“Two years ago, almost 3,000 students were at risk of not crossing the podium as the result of their biology end-of-course exam. This bill fixes that.”

MacEwen: Tests Distract From Learning

McEwen testified on HB 1046 that “there is very little learning that occurs in the fourth quarter of a year” due to preparation and completion of state assessments. “I come from the belief on this issue; if we trust the curriculum, we trust the teachers, and we trust the administrators, why are we doing this?”

In a statement read by State Sen. Hans Zeiger January 30 in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 panel, SB 5202 sponsor Baumgartner argued an SAT option for graduation would create a more efficient process for college-bound students, who would get a two-fer by meeting a state graduation requirement, and completing an important piece of their application process.

Speaking for Spokane Public Schools, lobbyist Melissa Gombosky said the last four years, the district has offered the SAT to high school students for free.  “We think this is a good option for other schools as well. We think it (SAT) better meets the needs of our community.”

Standards Concerns Surface

However, the bills revising graduation requirements also met with some skepticism. House Education panel member State Rep. Larry Springer (D-45) expressed hesitation about HB 1046. “What I am concerned about is assuring that a student who graduates from a school in one part of the state is relatively trained and proficient, as well as a student in another part of the state,” he said.

State Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-47) was also not sold. He asked MacEwen, “if I’m an employer, and I need an employee that has a certain level of math skills, is there a problem with this; that the high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean they have…certain math skills determined by a test?”

MacEwen replied that “as an employer, I’ve never dug into the background of a diploma.” He added that the military requires testing for science-based positions, regardless of where an applicant earned their high school diploma.

SB 5202 faced opposition from Reykdal at its January 30 public hearing. Speaking on his behalf, Assistant Superintendent Deborah Kane told panel members the State Superintendent is concerned about using national tests not aligned with state learning standards to determine how well a student understands that material. That could also make it difficult for OSPI to compare student performance by district if some use the SAT and others continue to rely on state assessments, she added.

Of SB 5202, she said, the “time may come in the next few years” for the bill, “as these concerns are addressed.”

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